Big business in learning to lead

Years ago it was the excellence movement. Now the big trend in business training is leadership and everyone’s doing it. Seriously.

“You see these things in primary schools now,” says Stephen Cummings, head of the school of management at Victoria University in Wellington. “My nine-year-old has a leadership group. There is a sense that, for better or worse, everyone needs to learn to be a leader.”

Leadership training has permeated every pore of society and no one feels it more than business owners and managers, who face a daunting array of choices. Every major business school in New Zealand offers some kind of scheme, but there is also Kaizen, total quality management, business process reengineering and the oh-so-hot design thinking.

But if you’re busy leading your business already, why bother?

“In the last maybe five or six years leadership has become something organisations feel they need to do, or at least feel they need to be seen doing,” says Cummings. “Culturally in Western society there has been a big move toward leadership and there’s irony there in that not everyone can be a leader and if everyone was, then you ’d have some issues.”

Some say it's also necessary to keep up appearances.

“An awful lot of work gets done in business in the name of legitimacy,” says Brad Jackson, the Fletcher Building Education Trust chair in leadership at the University of Auckland. “Appearing legitimate is important. So these major programmes — management fashions, as I used to call them — are important ways to legitimise what you’re doing.”

Deciding among the many offerings can be a daunting task. There's a move away from out-of-the-box programmes where any company can participate, often seen as overly prescriptive, towards programmes tailored for particular companies that have a direct, practical application for leaders.

“They’re all really useful things and it is worth any business person to take a look at what’s out there and do some research,” Jackson says. “But then you have to put it into action; not to think about what leadership skills one can download, but how one is going to lead.”

Frances Turner had a headstart on most organisations when shopping around for a leadership programme. As co-founder and general manager of the New Zealand Dance Company, a charitable trust, her training was largely funded by a Creative New Zealand grant. But finding a gap in her schedule was the biggest factor in deciding which programme to choose.

“You know how you look at your calendar and say, ‘oh my God, I don’t have time to go into additional training,” says Turner. “I didn’t have time to sign up. We were signing up all these dancers and choreographers and about to go into rehearsal. It was madness.”

Turner opted for the Mindset programme at the New Zealand Leadership Institute, co-directed by Jackson, based on recommendations by a peer in the arts who had already participated. The programme is run in two evening sessions per month over a three month period, which Turner says is perfect for busy people.

“For me it was about talking about a way of thinking, not a just learning a bunch of skills that was the real differentiator,” she says.

Sitting in a circle of 18 or 20 managers from diverse sectors, Turner’s group hashed out ‘wicked issues’ they faced in their businesses, learned to recognise 'frames' or perspectives in conversational role playing exercises and generally discussed distinguishing the leadership role from that of expert or manager. “It was all confidential and a safe environment,” Turner says. “It was all about as a leader you don’t have to have the answers yourself. That was very freeing and refreshing.”

She was able to share what she learned with her team, which helped shape the dance company’s efforts to form an identity. Industrial Research (IRL) has also found practical uses for the management programme it developed through Victoria University.

“What we were looking at was trying to take an organisation that was not performing well and was quite dysfunctional internally,” says Shaun Coffey, IRL’s CEO. “Staff didn’t understand how they could effectively engage in new processes and new directions we were taking. So the motivation was to unleash the creativity and potential of our people and to embed the idea that leadership isn’t just at the top.”

About half of IRL's staff have gone through the leadership training, based on the action learning model, over the past five or so years. Each cohort of 15 to 20 people is given a specific theme to focus on, such as improving internal processes or getting industry involved with R&D.

It took six months for IRL to settle on Victoria University’s leadership programme because it allowed the institute to design specific aspects of the programme, rather than being given an off-the-shelf package that precluded tailoring to the organisation’s needs.

“The key advice I have if you’re looking for a programme is you have to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve and make certain it’s always linked to activities that are going to improve your business,” says Coffey. “There also has to be strong commitment to learning at the top of the organisation. "That commitment has to extend to a good understanding between you and any external provider. It’s important to find somebody who is going to understand your situation and the needs you have internally."

Cummings agrees that for larger companies, leadership training has to be supported from the top. Choosing a programme poses a different set of questions for smaller companies in the market for a leadership scheme. “What I’d be asking is how is the programme run?” says Cummings.

“Is it convenient? What’s the quality of the people delivering the programme? Do they bring in practical people that have done this before and is it project based? Basically, 'how will this help me put into practice things I’ve already got bubbling up?' The biggest problem isn’t ideas, it’s time and structure.”

For Darren Cash of Resolve Group, a Mindset programme graduate, time is key.

“Leadership comes down to a personal definition and perspective,” he says. “For myself, it was about creating quality time to think what that means.”

Shopping around
Don't be fooled by a programme's packaging. Shop for a programme with the same sophistication you would use when shopping for a car or a house. Select a scheme that fits your schedule, is delivered by people who have put theory into practice and use real-world problems to approach leadership questions. Find a programme that lets you openly discuss your circumstances with peers. Set aside an hour or two each week to think about your role as a leader.